Dem 51
image description
GOP 49
image description

Inflation? Not So Much, Say the Numbers

This weekend, we ran this letter:

M.B. in Overland Park, KS, writes: If Joe Biden loses the election, I postulate that the main reason will be food prices. Inflation may be coming down on the wholesale level, but it's not reflected in food prices, which are continuing to rise. Many items at my local store are over 50%, and sometimes 75%, higher than pre-pandemic. When I go to buy milk or bread, it absolutely pisses me off. I do most of the shopping. My wife went the other night to pick up a few items and came back just searingly angry about being gouged by the grocers.

This is what the U.S. consumer feels and sees. They also see Biden doing absolutely nothing to publicly call for prices to go back down. There is obviously price-gouging because the manufacturers and distributors can really just charge what they want at this point, while using inflation as a shield and excuse.

Biden is invisible. He doesn't use the bully pulpit. He doesn't make any statements to the press. He says nothing about the things that are pissing off American consumers while the Republicans slam him for the prices.

My wife is as blue as me, and would not vote Donald Trump even under torture, but she is absolutely furious with Biden for doing absolutely nothing to address or even just acknowledge this issue. Where the hell is he on this issue? We can absorb the cost, but many can't. How pissed off must they be?

Pissed off people who shop and feel gouged, combined with a totally disengaged president and Democratic party will not be voters that are enthusiastic enough to show up, or may just vote for the team that at least acknowledges their pain.

Food prices will determine this election. Mark it on your list.

That prompted this response:

A.S. in Chicago, IL, writes: This is in response to M.B. in Overland Park, who claimed, without evidence, that food prices are up 50-75%. My question to M.B. would be, "Where are you shopping?" I have not paid more than $1.20 for a dozen eggs, for example, in 10 months. Last week, I bought a whole chicken for 99 cents a pound. If Joe Biden loses, it will be because people believe things that are false under the guise of "everybody knows." Well, everybody does not know what they are talking about. I shop sales and coupons and while some items are slightly higher than they were, my overall food budget is where it was before the pandemic. should not publish letters from people that are factually inaccurate without pointing this out.

Fair enough. There are a lot of economists in the world, and economists love, love, love to collect data. So, it's not too hard to examine whether food prices have spiked or not. We will consider the average price of a dozen eggs, a gallon of milk, a pound of bacon and a pound of coffee. In each table we'll give the actual price and the adjusted-to-2022-dollars price for the ten years from 2013-22, as well as for selected years prior to that:

Year Actual Adjusted
1995 $0.92 $2.24
2000 $0.91 $2.03
2005 $1.22 $2.49
2010 $1.66 $2.53
2013 $1.91 $2.50
2014 $2.02 $2.44
2015 $2.47 $2.53
2016 $1.68 $2.18
2017 $1.47 $2.11
2018 $1.74 $2.26
2019 $1.40 $2.02
2020 $1.51 $2.09
2021 $1.67 $2.21
2022 $2.86 $2.86

Year Actual Adjusted
1995 $2.48 $4.82
2000 $2.78 $4.51
2005 $3.19 $4.39
2010 $3.26 $4.34
2013 $3.46 $4.10
2014 $3.69 $4.13
2015 $3.42 $4.08
2016 $3.20 $4.01
2017 $3.23 $4.09
2018 $2.90 $3.77
2019 $3.04 $3.85
2020 $3.32 $3.97
2021 $3.55 $4.04
2022 $4.09 $4.09

Year Actual Adjusted
1995 $1.99 $6.34
2000 $3.03 $6.54
2005 $3.39 $6.19
2010 $4.11 $6.77
2013 $5.29 $7.13
2014 $5.78 $7.38
2015 $5.45 $7.44
2016 $5.42 $7.35
2017 $5.77 $7.32
2018 $5.47 $7.06
2019 $5.61 $7.10
2020 $5.58 $6.89
2021 $6.64 $7.24
2022 $7.31 $7.31

Year Actual Adjusted
1995 $4.04 $5.79
2000 $3.45 $5.17
2005 $3.26 $4.73
2010 $3.91 $4.88
2013 $5.45 $6.16
2014 $4.99 $5.77
2015 $4.72 $5.29
2016 $4.39 $5.07
2017 $4.45 $5.14
2018 $4.30 $5.08
2019 $4.14 $4.95
2020 $4.43 $5.26
2021 $4.71 $5.42
2022 $5.89 $5.89

Obviously, the 2023 numbers aren't in yet, but inflation has been much flatter this year than last, so the likelihood is that the inflation-adjusted prices will drop a bit. In any event, it is clear that eggs are up some, coffee's up a bit, and milk and bacon are steady. And none of them are at historically high inflation-adjusted prices.

That said, just because inflation isn't actually wildly out of control doesn't necessarily mean anything in terms of people's perceptions. Joe Biden, or any other president who is getting banged for inflation, is running up against at least two politically unfriendly cognitive processes:

  1. Even though people should account for inflation—which does mean higher prices, but also means higher wages, increased 401Ks, higher home values, etc.—they don't.

  2. People don't look at their shopping cart or food order holistically; they tend to zoom in on the one or two things that stick out as concerningly expensive. That's how an oddly expensive Big Mac, one that has nothing to do with normal McDonalds menu prices, ends up as a million-man meme.

There is not a single thing here that Joe Biden's advisers are unaware of, which means there is not a single thing here that Joe Biden is not aware of. And we have no idea what the President does with all of this. He could channel his inner class warrior, and moan and groan about food prices being out of control. But he'd know he was selling a basically phony line, and he's not too good at that. And we all know how much damage a phony "what's with these prices?" performance can do (think crudités).

Alternatively, Biden can do what he's probably going to do: Hope that inflation stays reasonably low, that people adapt to current prices, and that a year from now a $5.89 (or so) pound of coffee doesn't stick out as particularly problematic. (Z)

This item appeared on Read it Monday through Friday for political and election news, Saturday for answers to reader's questions, and Sunday for letters from readers.                     State polls                     All Senate candidates